All the Roads, Well Traveled or Not
The closer and closer they got to home, the harder and harder it was to deny that this, right here, was the moment he had been waiting for. He had had an epiphany that morning, out there in the woods, in the wilds of New Hampshire. It had come fast and furious, while he was sweeping the campground for trash. A handful of candy bar wrappers in one hand and a handful of bottle caps and cigarette butts in the other, he had been smiling at a thought that was crossing his mind—that you could take the boy out of the Scouts but not the Scout out of the boy—but then, then he saw what he had missed around the perimeter. He tossed the garbage in his hands into the enormous green trash bag that Jenna was using to scrape off the breakfast plates, he grabbed the dustpan and hand-sized broom from their milk crate of cleaning supplies, and he stalked off across the campsite to finish the job.
He started with the wads of toilet paper that had been hidden behind the other girls’ tents. Some of it was relatively dry and intact, but much of it was strewn across the grass in sodden clumps of white cotton. Michael tried not to think about whether it was wet because of rain or because of what it had been used for. He swept up what he could with the broom, then plucked up what remained with his fingers.
When he brought it back to Jenna, he showed her the dustpan without saying a word. She rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Sorry,” she said.
“The girls you work with are disgusting,” said Michael.
“They’re lazy,” said Jenna. “That’s all. And, to be fair, the latrine up the way was filthy, and it stank to high heaven.”
“I hope this isn’t considered some form of infidelity,” said Michael, looking over the site for more of the foul debris. “You know, me touching the TP they used to wipe their pee-pees and all.”
Jenna laughed. “Did you see where Kristin dumped her dog’s food?”
Michael groaned. “Are you fucking kidding me? She couldn’t be bothered to dump it in a trash can? Did she not hear the part about this being bear country?”
“Well,” said Jenna, “I’m guessing she either wasn’t thinking about it at all, or she was thinking that the bear would be done with it before the next set of campers showed up.”
Michael grunted, and set off to find the kibbles and bits, wherever they might be. But as he did, he called back to her and he asked, “How did you get to be the way you are, when all of them ended up the way they are?”
“Luck of the draw,” she said. “But everyone’s got their faults, Michael. They may not know how to camp, but they do know how many Twizzlers is too many, and they do remember to shave their legs for more than just special occasions.”
Michael smiled at her joke. As he crouched low to sweep up the dog food, he thought about the faults that Jenna had rattled off, and about all of the other little imperfections she had: the way that she stole his food if he didn’t eat it fast enough; the way that her voice pitched absurdly high when she got over-excited; and the cacophony that issued from nose whenever she blew it clean, the trail of neatly-folded tissues she left in her wake. Maybe that’s all that love is, he thought to himself. Maybe love is just a matter of finding the person whose tics match your tacs. He should ask her, he knew then. He should, he should, he should. And if not right that moment, then at some point that day.
But now, hours later, they were passing by the abandoned comic book store on Chelmsford Street, the place where Eddie and Alice’s romance had blossomed and then withered. It had been the first romantic entanglement that Michael had ever borne witness to, outside of the stale dramas of his family’s own soap opera. And it had always been so striking to him how much they sacrificed to be with one another. They were essentially homeless, hiding their mattress behind the skirt of the orange burlap table cloth that sat beneath their rows and rows of long boxes. They lived 24/7 in a place that reeked of the litter box they hid in their unventilated bathroom. And they stayed at each other’s side for days on end in that gloomy place, because there was no space to give each other space, and there was no vehicle with which to escape. Eddie and Alice were kind of what Michael imagined his grandparents were like, back when they first moved to Chelmsford—they were dreamers, like he himself, and they made do.
The only difference was that Eddie and Alice’s dream never came true. Their store failed, and then so did their love. And that, that was what Michael was afraid of.
But maybe it was all a matter of perspective, maybe it was all a matter of how much you were willing to give and to give up.
Unable to afford a place in Boston, or even in any of the surrounding suburbs, Grampy said that they had come up north and west of the city, almost all of the way to New Hampshire, before they found a place that they could afford. Gramp was still playing trumpet in the bands at that point. He’d applied for a job to teach music at the high school, at every high school, in fact, in the eastern part of the state. He’d gotten his hair cut, buzzed down to next to nothing, the first time he’d ever had it so short, and he’d bought a three-piece suit at Filene’s for the interviews. But, in the end, he’d settled for a position at the ginger ale plant on Littleton Road, just off to the side of the center. And Grampy had settled on that job because, as he’d said, “I saw a certain twinkle in my bride’s eye as we drove through the center of town that day, the old Ford puttering along.” He had settled, because that was the right thing to do. He had settled because, deep down, he must’ve known that certain dreams, the really big ones, the really crazy ones, will always end up as nightmares. But did they have to? Wasn’t there some way around that? There had to be, didn’t there?
Michael shook his head, and tried to think of something else.
“Your Grammy loved everything about Chelmsford,” Grampy had recalled. “From the hilly farmland on the outskirts to the quaint little center, a half-dozen steeples jutting up above the tree line like something out of a Rockwell. And so, we found ourselves a place and we built ourselves a home.”
It hadn’t changed much, even all these years later. Chelmsford was, as always, a mix of old and new. There were the churches, yes—Central Baptist, Central Congregational, and All Saint’s right there, and St. Mary’s just down the road—and there was the massive French-style hotel, and the old colonials, but there were also a bevy of low, squat brick buildings filling in the gaps, buildings like Jack’s Diner, where Grammy used to work to help make ends meet, and where, climbing up onto its roof from the back alley, Michael’s father and uncle had perched themselves to watch the Fourth of July parade each year.
The real thing that made the Center stand out though, and the thing that Michael tried to capture whenever he sketched it, was the intersection. Roads from every surrounding city and town intersected here in a snarl of hilly, bumpy pavement that was entirely unregulated by stop lights or sanity. Boston Road and Acton Road came in from the south, Littleton Road came in from the west, Billerica Road from the east, and the aptly named North Road from the north. And then there was Chelmsford Street, which took you straight into the slums of Lowell, if you went far enough. Grampy always spoke of this place with a certain fondness. “They say Boston is the hub of the universe,” he’d begin. “But really, I think that’s Chelmsford. The center of town, with all those streets coming in, really is the center of things. Boston, unless you’ve got a ship in port, ready to bear you off, is just the end of the road. But in our old town, anything is possible. Every path is laid out before you, and the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do is pick the first you wish to travel.”
Michael pulled off to the side of the road and parked in front of Jack’s.
“We stopping for lunch?” asked Jenna.
“No,” he said. “I just wanted to ask you a question.”
“Shoot,” she said.
“If you could go anywhere,” he said. “If you could do anything... which road would you choose, Jenna?”
She smiled. “Why can’t we take them all?” she said. “We’ve got time.”
Michael nodded. Then he reached into his pocket and took out the box.
Originally published in 2012 in Entelechy International: A Journal of Contemporary Ideas #7